Report shows that changing the track gauge would not be cost-effective
On 12 April 2023, the Ministry of Transport and Communications published a report on the opportunities provided by the introduction of the standard European track gauge in Finland and on the related impacts. Preliminary estimates show that the costs of the considered alternative implementations are significant in relation to the benefits.
According to the report, the alternatives are, from a transport perspective alone, not cost-effective. However, security of supply and other major infrastructure investments should be taken into account when considering the necessity of changes. The report follows a European Commission proposal according to which new TEN-T rail connections should be built in the European standard nominal track gauge without exceptions. The proposal is still being discussed in the EU.
Building a new trunk line from Helsinki to Tornio would deliver the greatest benefits
The track gauge currently used in Finland is 1524 mm, and the report assesses the feasibility of implementing different sections with a standard European track gauge of 1435 mm. The impacts of three alternatives are analysed:
1. A new trunk line from Helsinki to Tornio with a European gauge, running alongside the existing main line
2. Building the rail lines of new project companies using the European track gauge
3. Migrating the TEN-T network lines to European track gauge.
The report suggests that the first alternative would bring the greatest benefits and the smallest disadvantages. Similarly, a more detailed analysis should be prepared on the construction of rail lines by the new project companies Suomirata, the Turku One Hour Train and the Itärata eastern rail link, with a 1435 mm track gauge.
Meanwhile, the negative impacts of migrating the entire TEN-T network in Finland to the European track gauge was deemed to outweigh the potential benefits. According to estimates, changes will have a negative impact on transport service levels, especially for the transport of raw wood and other industrial goods. For large-scale introduction of the European track gauge, it would be more cost-effective to migrate almost the entire rail network to the same track gauge.
Changing the track gauge involves significant costs
The report analyses the alternatives taking into consideration matters such as accessibility, sustainability, efficiency and security of supply. The report suggests that in all the scenarios considered, changing the track gauge could improve the rail market. A single European track gauge could facilitate international passenger and freight traffic and improve the availability of rolling stock.
From a transport perspective, the alternatives are not cost-effective. According to the report, all alternatives generate costs that are significant in relation to the potential benefits. However, other aspects besides transport should be taken into account when assessing the alternatives, particularly security of supply and the development of EU transport networks.
The report compares technical implementations
The report suggests that any changes should be implemented either by changing all or part of the existing track gauge or by building new lines with the European gauge alongside existing ones. If new lines are built, new passing loops for European track gauges should also be built, and steps must be taken to ensure depot services are available for narrow-gauge stock.
The conditions in Finland do not permit using two different track gauges on the same line. There is no existing solution for using three rails, as the difference in track width is too small. A four-rail line, where the line would operate at two different gauges, is not possible on an electric line. The central line is different at different gauges, which would prevent a four-rail implementation from being used effectively and extensively.
The report explores various scenarios in a situation where multiple gauge widths are used. The first one is a process already used in Tornio, which involves lifting the train to change the bogies. The process is quite slow and is therefore not optimal for large transport volumes.
Another option is to use a variable gauge system. In this case, the train is equipped with special bogies holding variable gauge wheelsets containing a variable gauge axle. A variable gauge system is used in passenger transport in some countries, but it has not yet been introduced in freight transport.
Responding to the proposal for a single European track gauge
In July 2022, the Commission proposed that new TEN-T rail connections be built in the European standard nominal track gauge (1435 mm) without exceptions, and that a migration plan be developed towards this European standard nominal track gauge for all existing TEN-T lines, with the exception of the lines where this is not justified based on a cost-benefit analysis.
Finland has criticised the Commission’s proposal for a regulation and considers that national discretion should be allowed in questions concerning track gauge. In December 2022, the Ministry of Transport and Communications launched a preliminary track gauge survey, which was carried out by a team of specialists from Proxion, Destia and Ubigu.
In December 2022, the Council adopted a general approach on the proposed TEN-T regulation, according to which Member States retain national discretion in matters concerning track gauge.
However, negotiations on the proposed TEN-T regulation are still ongoing in the EU. Finland will continue to lobby for retaining national discretion regarding track gauge in the final regulation.
The report contains suggestions for further analyses. More detailed cost-benefit calculations on the track gauge changes and an assessment of the environmental impact of the implementation are needed.
Maria Torttila, Senior Specialist, tel. +358 295 342237, [email protected]